Living in Interesting Times

By Rich Handley

In a world of uncertainty, addressing supply chain problems becomes vital for everyone.

There's a common phrase you've no doubt heard: "May you live in interesting times." It's often cited as a traditional Chinese curse, even though no credible Chinese source for that ironically worded quote has surfaced and no equivalent expression exists in the Chinese language. In fact, there's good reason to believe the phrase actually has its roots in an 1898 speech from British statesmen Joseph Chamberlain, with no connection at all to China. Unfortunately, the public mindset is often a game of telephone, interwoven with whatever societal preconceptions are trending at that time.

Well, it's 122 years later, we do indeed live in interesting times, and (whether fairly or not) a lot of people are blaming China for it since the COVID-19 virus was first identified in the city of Wuhan, in that nation's Hubei province. How and why the coronavirus is here, however, really doesn't matter much anymore, because it is here and it has infected many and affected all. Now is the time for everyone to come together and address the situation rather than play the blame game.

The number of known coronavirus cases is rising daily across the globe. Cities, states, and entire countries are shutting down. Quarantines are in effect, while schools, stores, airports, restaurants, bars, malls, and even churches are closing their doors, and everyone is being urged to practice responsible social distancing. Fear and paranoia are taking hold as politicians and health-care experts offer grim (and frequently contradictory) outcome predictions; celebrities post social-media announcements of their having contracted the disease; and store shelves remain bare due to hoarding, panic, and growing supply chain problems as manufacturers, retailers, and health-care facilities try to keep their collective heads above water.

A recent article published by CNBC reported: "The virus has since spread into the U.S., Canada, Italy, Spain, France, South Korea, Iran and Germany, among other countries. There have been more than 179,000 cases confirmed globally, and at least 7,057 deaths, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University." Those numbers have risen since the article's publication only yesterday—at press-time, we're up to nearly 198,000 cases and 8,000 deaths—and that's expected to continue at a rather alarming rate.

While it's undeniable that influenza has infected and killed people in far greater numbers than COVID-19, the situation is not one to take lightly. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a pandemic, and prominent immunologist Anthony Fauci has repeatedly advised that businesses and individuals should prepare for the worst.

When the crisis began, many U.S. retailers were worried that Chinese manufacturing plants would be severely disrupted by the outbreak, limiting American access to the products to which we've become accustomed. Since then, the pandemic has brought many companies to a standstill and supply chains have suffered across the board. The ironic phrase about living in interesting times might not be of Chinese origin, but there's a certain irony in the fact that China's manufacturing facilities are the ones starting to come back online, thanks to that nation's effective efforts to halt the disease's spread, whereas other countries, including the United States, have not been as successful.

Meanwhile, the stock market has been cliff-diving this past week, and those paying attention to what is going on are nervous. In the coming weeks and months, we are sure to see large-scale changes in many sectors. Small businesses are being hard hit, particularly those that were already not doing well before this crisis began, and it's pretty much a certainty that some will not survive.

Larger companies, too, will need to make some grim decisions in order to make it through the rough times ahead, as will local and national governments. Regardless of whether one views the current situation as media overhype or something to justifiably be concerned about, it's not a pretty picture. People will lose jobs, and individuals and businesses alike will face financial hardships that will change the economic landscape for the foreseeable future. Logistics startup Zencargo predicts that U.S. retailers alone could lose $700 million within the next month, according to the CNBC article. That's just the tip of the global iceberg.

As CNBC's Lauren Thomas pointed out, China will play a role in repairing the supply chain breakdown. "One cannot ignore the role China plays, by itself, in so many businesses getting goods onto shelves," she wrote. "Overall, roughly 20% of U.S. retailers' supply chains are exposed to China, according to data pulled by Cowen & Co." Sixty percent of Best Buy's goods come from China, while Wayfair, Kohl's, American Eagle, and many other companies also rely on that nation to keep their supply chains moving. We are truly all in this together, so addressing the problem needs to be global.

Fixing broken supply chains will not be easy, but these things are cyclical. The good news is that the economy, jobs, people's health, and the public's confidence in governments and stock markets will bounce back, because they always do. This isn't the first major crisis we've faced as a species and as a global society, and it certainly won't be the last. If we all keep our heads, wash our hands, make responsible decisions, and listen to the medical experts like Doctor Fauci instead of partisan politicians and conspiracy theorists, we will get through this. In the meantime, cutting-edge technologies like radio frequency identification can help to keep supply chains moving.

Investing in RFID solutions now, even in the face of an uncertain immediate future, can help businesses reduce their operational expenses in the long term, which could help to deflect the financial challenges they will likely face due to the pandemic. It would be silly to claim RFID can stop the coronavirus, because of course it can't, but one thing the technology can do is make it easier for health-care companies, hospitals, medical clinics, and first-responders to assist those infected. RFID provides real-time traceability for individuals and resources, while improving patient safety, efficiency, asset tracking, patient identification, security, and more.

Health-care companies, as well as retailers and brands, can use RFID and other Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to optimize manufacturing, distribution, and supply chain efforts, and this could lessen financial burdens. The technology lets companies monitor vehicles in transit, track temperatures (which is vital for making sure medicines and perishable goods do not expire before they can be administered or consumed), personalize care, finetune operations for better efficiency, manage inventory and warehouse processes, and so on.

I'm sure that purchasing and deploying an RFID system is probably not the first thing on anyone's mind at the moment, and understandably so. But for businesses and organizations worried about the future in this period of uncertainty, it's something definitely worth considering.

I opened this article with a common (albeit misattributed) quote, so I'll close on another—and I'll choose a proverb that actually did originate in China: "It is easy to get a thousand prescriptions, but hard to get one single remedy." RFID is not a single remedy to our current problems, because no single remedy exists. It will take a lot of combined efforts on many fronts for us to move past COVID-19 and resume our former lifestyles, social activities, and economic prosperities. But when it comes to addressing the resultant supply chain problems that are preventing people from getting food, drugs, and other necessities, RFID and IoT technologies may be just what the doctor ordered.

Rich Handley is the managing editor of RFID Journal. Rich has authored, edited or contributed to dozens of books about pop culture and is also the editor of Eaglemoss's Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection.